Prescribed fire at Moody Forest © Rich Reid

How Fire Can Restore a Forest (TIME LAPSE VIDEO)

Editor’s note: The following guest post is from Rich Reid, an outdoor photographer based in Ojai, California. Rich recently returned from an assignment for Nature Conservancy magazine documenting the regrowth of a forest after a controlled burn.

The Nature Conservancy’s Chuck Martin pulled up in his white truck and introduced himself in his friendly southern accent as I photographed a historic tobacco-drying log cabin on the 4,000-plus-acre Moody Forest Natural Area that he manages. The wealth of Chuck’s ecological and historical knowledge made this preserve in southern Georgia come to life. After decades of turpentine harvesting from the longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) and loblolly pine (Pinus taeda), plus altered land use for over a century, the Conservancy and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources partnered to create this woodland preserve in 2001 with the help from the Moody Family.

I found myself in this beautiful old-growth forest on a unique mission: document the changes of a controlled burn using time-lapse photography. The Conservancy has been using controlled burns as a method to restore native habitats and control invasive plants for over 50 years on their lands. My assignment sounded simple enough… what could go wrong?

Moody’s Diverse Natural Communities

Driving down the narrow sandy road through this longleaf pine and blackjack oak forest, Chuck points out the burrows of the threatened gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus). As we past each “unit” I could see the obvious burn chronology on the fire-managed forest he was describing. We glided past the 32-acre scheduled burn site on our way to a beautiful cypress and tupelo slough that recently flooded from an overflowing Altamaha River. The large carnivorous yellow pitcherplant (Sarracenia lava) grew in patches of recently burned underbrush as white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) leaped through the well-managed forest.

On our ride I reflected on the preparation that went into pulling off this long-term time-lapse video assignment. Not only did I have to build a fire-proof camera housing for my Nikon D7000, it had to survive two months out in the elements as it recorded the forest regrowth after the burn. Challenges were met each day; software limitations, hardware problems, battery issues and long days in the field.

Time-lapse camera casing

Burn a Forest to Save a Forest

Chuck handed out satellite maps and safety briefed his professional fire crew as they measured conditions. The small test fire passed inspection so the “back fire” was light with drip torches along the trail and burned predictable into the north breeze. Now for the impressive part: the fire crew scripted with precision the lighting of the “head fire” connecting the “back fire” precisely where my three cameras were filming, capturing every lick of flame.

Time-lapse camera

All three cameras were surrounded by fire at one point but remarkably, only a lens hood melted and the safety straps shrunk. Once it was safe to enter they burn zone, I swapped new cards and batteries to record a time-lapse of the full moon casting long shadows through the smoky forest. At sunrise, I returned for the final time to retrieve data and set up two of my cameras for two months recording the regrowth in the burn zone.

Two months and one week later, I was really excited to see a large box on my porch that Chuck shipped containing my two cameras. Not a day went by without thinking about my equipment 2,500 miles away strapped to a tree “supposedly” clicking away. Anxiously I opened the box that contained the answers and unbelievably they performed as planned; 1850 RAW files on one camera and 1,200 jpegs on the other.

After months of planning and executing this assignment, ecstatic is the only way to describe seeing a lush green forest on the last images on each card. This couldn’t be the same forest I left a few months ago? Not only was I amused with the prolific regrowth but also amazed my cameras survived this adventure. After hand selecting the forest images, I used a range of software to auto-align, color correct and assemble thousands of still images into these time-lapse videos. Enjoy.

Special thanks to Chuck Martin and Erick Brown from The Nature Conservancy and their fire crew for keeping me safe and providing this incredible opportunity to document fire in a positive way. Your work benefits the wildlife and people that depend on healthy forests.

[Video and images © Rich Reid for The Nature Conservancy]

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Comments

  1. That’s some interesting monitoring, but I think the description is in error. That’s not restoration. No evidence exists that I’ve seen (and I’ve looked) to suggest that fires will restore forests in the short term. Theories say it might work over the long term, but that has yet to be documented. Most of the species in such communities are very slow about dispersing and areas that are degraded enough to extirpate species will not magically get them back just because of a fire or a few. What these videos show is maintenance. Frequent fires maintain ares that are in good condition, keeping them that way. These videos show part of a cyclical pattern that happens in healthy forests. That’s not restoration, but maintaining processes that shaped the ecosystem to keep it in functioning normally.

    1. Thank you for your question, Michael, it’s a good one. Malcolm Hodges, our Director of Stewardship for The Nature Conservancy in Georgia, asked me to post this reply:
       
      Fire is most definitely restoration, both in the short-term (a single fire) and long-term (with consistent fire management), particularly in the southeast longleaf pine systems where this video was shot. Controlled burns can  restore systems to natural structure and composition by favoring fire-tolerant plants and wildlife over fire-intolerant ones. For instance, red maple, water oak, and sweetgum trees moving up out of wet lowland forests (where they naturally belong) into pine-dominated uplands (where they don’t) will often be killed back to roots, thus giving the pines a better chance. This reflects an immediate structural change for the woodland that has burned for the first time in decades, and if burns are repeated, eventually it becomes long-term species-composition change (and a profound one) for such habitats.  
       
      This is only one example of many I could cite, demonstrating that fire restores pine woodland habitats both in the short-term and long-term, and it’s exactly the process that is taking place as we return fire to Moody Forest Natural Area, where the videos were taken. Fire moves simpler and less diverse habitats into more biologically complex and diverse systems. That, in a nutshell, is why we burn.  
       
      After we’ve been burning for a long time (maybe another 30-50 years at Moody Forest), we’ll be burning to maintain the restored system. Luckily for us, most species are still present at Moody Forest, but restoration is going to involve reintroduction of both canopy and herb layers for some very disturbed patches. That species manipulation will be only one aspect of restoration, which will also involve reintroduction and manipulation of natural processes such as fire.
       
      If you’re interested, here is an article last year that explains how a lack of fire is harming our Eastern forests: http://www.eenews.net/stories/1059965005
       
      And if you’re keen to see more footage of Moody Forest Natural Area, here’s a video of us hosting some college students from Montana who are studying forests and controlled burns: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4rK4WRjQ8yY

      -Madeline, editor of Conservancy Talk

  2. That was an interesting comment. How does The Nature Conservancy respond to this?

  3. they have done really good work… awesome album

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